Six Marks of an Excellent Ministry
“The Joy & Crown of Boasting”
“But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, 18 because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us. 19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20 For you are our glory and joy.” 1 Thessalonians 2.17-20
Why Paul had such a tremendous impact with those to whom he writes demands our attention. We of course understand and affirm and glory in the fact God was the reason. God is why. God is always the why. He was very much in the whole thing, working His will and saving purpose. It is a purpose decreed before the dawn of time, a purpose to bless the nations through Abraham’s seed, Christ Jesus, Son of God, Son of David, and King of the Jews. The cross of Mt. Calvary on which this King died is the apex of this purpose; Christ crucified for the sins of His people, not just Jews, but Gentiles, non-Jews also – like those to whom Paul writes here in Thessalonica.
God has a people. Paul knew that. It’s what drove him. It’s what motivated him to endure all things, like hunger and the dungeon and the stocks and sleepless nights. Paul both knew and taught what we joyfully affirm and exult in, that God is sovereign in salvation. He alone opens blind eyes. He alone opens deaf ears. He alone causes the dead to live and cry for mercy and forgiveness of sins. From start to finish, salvation belongs to, and is completely of, the Lord.
In accordance with these things, and as a consequence of God’s sovereignty, Paul, the apostle, but also servant of God and Christ’s slave, loved. Paul truly cared for these folks. We’ve seen that. We’ve seen how he spent himself for the profit of the ones to whom he writes. There’s something very basic here, so foundational to real, effective, excellent ministry, one that’s truly influential, which leaves a real impact. Paul was a man. He was an apostle, yes. But we must not allow that to cloud the fact of his fallen-ness, his depravity. He was a real man with every temptation and frailty known to a man. That is to say, we must not always put Paul in a category far above us. His apostleship does set him apart; he held a foundational, unrepeatable office, one that bears much weight and authority. But he’s just a man, flesh and blood like you and me.
Why I belabor this is this: Paul’s effectiveness did not rest on his apostleship. His impact wasn’t because Paul was Paul. The secret of his ministry success, if I may speak this way, is the simple, but profound fact that he was Spirit-filled. He was a Spirit-filled minister and servant of God and His word. Of course, we need to see this against the canvass and backdrop of God’s sovereignty. God works. And God works in His people even as Christ dwells in them by His Spirit. What I want to get across to you is this: If you’re a member of the New Covenant, if by faith Christ dwells in you and you are led by the Spirit whose fruit is love, your ministry to both believers and unbelievers can be and will be influential and even excellent. We are not like Paul in a number of ways. But we share this glorious mystery with him, even ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory.’
Excellent Ministry Consists of Sincere Affection, not Just Sound Doctrine
Having said all that, we now come to the text before us. And what this text does is illustrate, even put on glorious display, something of Paul’s heart. Just listen to his heart as I read it again for you:
“17 But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, 18 because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us. 19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20 For you are our glory and joy.”
The big thing I see and hear here is Paul so loved that he so endeavored. Paul so loved this church that he did all that was humanly possible to be with it. Excellent ministry is not simply a matter of sound doctrine, in other words. It also includes sincere affection. Doctrine is not enough!
In these verses, Paul makes clear the providence. He says they were ‘torn away from’ his readers, the church which he founded. He had been there for maybe three weeks, working, laboring among them for gospel advance. His activities caused such an uproar the brethren thought it best to send him away by night. Paul speaks of this as a ripping. I need not tell you the obvious, that a ripping is painful. He actually speaks as though he was orphaned, that this made him an orphan, as if he suffered the loss of his parents. Such was the deep attachment he felt for these believers. Affection and attachment go hand in hand. If no affection, then no attachment. If no attachment, then no tearing. But there was tearing. And so there was tremendous grief. (It’s good for us to see that faith doesn’t make the pain go away, not even for the apostle himself.) But though they were torn away physically, they were not so in heart, he says. In other words, though the church was out of sight, it was not out of the apostle’s heart and mind.
If we could sum up this epistle so far, we could do so this way: We could hang everything on these two prayers of thanksgiving to God. At the very outset, Paul says he gives thanks to God for their work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope in Christ. And then he says, in verse 13, chapter 2, that he gives thanks for how they received the word they preached. He was away from them. But he prayed for them. He prayed, thanking God for this work He had begun in them and was doing in them. So, we can see this to be true, how Paul in fact remained tethered to them in his heart. Out of sight, but not out of mind.
But he says more. Can you hear him? ‘We prayed for you, and we endeavored to come to you more than once. We made every effort, on a number of occasions, to make our way to you, to see you face to face, to be together with you. We endeavored to be together!’ This word for ‘endeavored:’ it means to do something with intense effort and motivation. And not to be misunderstood or even heard too lightly, he adds great weight to this. He piles on more words for emphasis, to convey the extreme intensity of this endeavor. He says he endeavored “the more eagerly and with great desire.” This attempt, these attempts were thus fueled by extreme and excessive longing. Paul craved to be together with these believers again. No one could charge him with making simple, half-hearted token attempts to reunite. And no one could legitimately say Paul did not genuinely care for his new converts. In fact, one gets the impression that whether by ‘caravan, crossing the desert like an Arab man, if by sailboat, if by tree swinging rope to rope, if by sled, sliding down a slope,’ Paul would do whatever to get there if he could! Great passions fuel great actions.
What we have here is none other than a glimpse into the heart of one who truly cares for and is truly committed to the church. Paul was a true churchman. He loved the church. He was among those who carried the church in his heart. In Philippians 1.7, he makes this statement. He says, ‘…It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace…’ But lest anyone think this had anything to do with Paul, that somehow this burden of and for the church originated with him, he says this to the Corinthians. He says, “But thanks be to God, who put into the heart of Titus the same earnest care I have for you” (2 Cor. 8.16). This is again very much a God thing. God is at work when He burdens men with the church and makes them carry her, and hold her, in their hearts. Solid doctrine? Absolutely! But the exemplary ministry consists also of sincere and even deep affection for fellow partakers of grace, for the brethren.
We see therefore that excellent ministry is intensely relational. Paul puts his heart on display here. He shows us a work of faith and a labor of love. Though absent from the body, the Thessalonian body, he made every effort to see that body.
What prevented him, or shall we say, who prevented him, might come somewhat as a surprise to some. But without apology or uncertainty, the apostle makes this assertion, that “Satan hindered us.” He ‘blocked the way.’ How he did so Paul doesn’t reveal. It isn’t as though Paul always credits Satan with foiling his efforts. But this time he does which tells us two things. First, it tells us something of the fierce desire and passionate endeavor to go back. Only Satan himself could get in the way. Only the devil could stop Paul and his co-workers. It isn’t that Satan is all-powerful and omnipotent. He is not. Nor is it that he’s calling the shots. Nor must we think in terms of Star Wars, that there’s this war between good and evil, between the good and the dark side, and in any given battle, either side could win. This is not the Biblical picture. The Bible is clear on the matter. The devil has been defeated. He does not have the upper hand. But obviously, he still has a say; he still prowls about, making things difficult for those who care for the church, who seek to instruct and edify her. He is a foe and a real one at that, able to frustrate the plans of even the apostle.
Second, and I’ve already hinted at it, is this idea that we must be mindful there is a battle going on. To be clear, the devil is not behind every rock or bad thing. We must not even blame him for the terrible news coming out of Toronto and Denver this past week; there is enough wrong with men in and of themselves to cause horrific events. Men aren’t insane; men are in sin. The heart of the matter is this matter of the heart out of which comes things like mass shootings. But as true as this is, it is also true that Satan is at work, doing all he can, which is all he’s allowed, to thwart the plans of those given to gospel advance and edifying the church. “Satan makes his presence felt to Christian workers,” the commentator writes. “He even prevents them from doing things they would dearly love to do. Scripture makes it clear that his power is derivative, and always subject to God’s overruling. But within the limits allotted to him he does hinder God’s servants.”[i]
Their Joy and Crown of Boasting
We press on. Paul continues in the 19th and 20th verses, giving a word of explanation. He tells of why he wanted to come to them. It’s rather striking. He explains to them that they will be his hope and joy and crown of boasting at the coming of Christ. But notice how he says it. He does not put it in the future tense, although the future is unquestionably in view. What he says is “19 For what IS our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you?” He speaks of a future reality in the present tense. He says ‘is’ not ‘will be.’ What IS our hope or joy or crown of boasting before [Him] at his coming? This is no grammatical mistake. Paul could read and write. He was very literate. What he said and how he said it was, under the inspiration of the Spirit of God, very much intended. So, I take this as a sure indication Paul was certain of what he was saying. He was sure that at the second coming, when Christ returns in all His splendor, when called to give account for his ministry, that is, when his ministry would be judged, this church, the one to whom he wrote here, would be his joy and crown of boasting. ‘See God! Here! Look at these ones who received your word as your word, in whom your word worked, those who suffered on account of it and at great cost! Look Lord! Look at these ones! These are those known for their labor of love and work of faith and hope, enduring hope, in thee.’
This is that of which he spoke in 1 Corinthians 3. Paul there writes these words. He says that “each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:13-15).
Three things: Paul says this church is his hope when Christ returns. He hoped his labor not be in vain. He hoped that when put to the test, his ministry would pass the test and not be burned up. So here when he says they are his hope when Christ comes, we know this hope will not be dashed. He evidently had great confidence in this church.
Next he says this church is his joy when Christ comes back. No sorrow here, is there. No painful, heavy burden like when a pastor gets when unsure about the true condition of any number of his flock. Just joy. It’s amazing isn’t it! The church, was the reason, the source even, of Paul’s joy. The church will be reason for his joy, when Christ returns and the fire begins to burn, testing his ministry. It isn’t that Christ won’t be his joy. But Paul will have joy upon joy!
Third, this church, says Paul will be his crown of boasting on that day. It’s more than fascinating to think that he who wrote “But may it never be that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…” says what he says here. In Paul’s day crowns were wreaths made of various materials like leaves. In the games, the victorious athlete received a wreath, not a medal. Evidently, the reward recognized not just victory, but effort and work as well. A crown was also placed upon the head of one who received grand civic honors. It was the granting of public recognition for something deemed worthy of such. It’s within this social and cultural context, that Paul says what he says here. On that Day, he says, when Christ returns, who will be our crown of boasting? When the race is done and over, when all is said and done, after I’ve poured my heart to you, and spent myself on you, I will receive an award. I will be adorned with a shiny gold medal! I will wear a crown! And what is that crown? In what reward will I boast? Is it not you, he says? He won’t boast in himself, but the ones to whom he writes. And to put the cherry on top, he ends the thing by adding this. He says to them that they won’t simply be all these things to him and his co-workers, but that they already are. You will be he says ‘For you are our glory and joy’ (verse 20).
To sum up it’s very simple. In effect, Paul says, ‘We endeavored because we wanted to see you for you are our pride and joy. You are. And you will be.’
It seems then, that whatever we can take away from this (and much can be taken away), we can rightfully assume that those given to the church, who carry the church in their hearts, and are so invested in the church, that the church’s steadfastness and faithfulness is their joy. A faithful, Word-receiving church, one marked by the work of faith, labor of love and steadfastness in the face of opposition, that therefore gives evidence the Word is working in them, is a source of deep joy for men like elders and others who care for the well-being of the church. On the other hand, it stands to reason that the opposite is cause for sorrow. Faithless churches stab at the hearts of faithful men.
Furthermore, if out of sight does not mean out of heart, then neither does it mean lack of care or concern. Paul was physically absent. But absence did not equal, nor does it always mean, abandonment. Providences and circumstances and Satan will hinder the best of efforts and the best of intentions. But they could not, nor could he, thwart the affection Paul had for his beloved. He was torn from them in body, but the devil could not tear his heart from them. So, remember Christian, you might not get to be with another, or others, in person. But you can still hold others, and be held by others, in heart. We may, as the priesthood of believers, not be able to minister to each other because of legitimate physical absence. But absence in body does not need to mean absent in heart. Amen? We can pray for each other. We can pick up the phone. We can email. We can send notes and cards in the mail. This is not too difficult, is it? Love makes this not easy, but a joy!
And finally, we must ask ourselves: “Will we be cause for joy and a crown of boasting for someone?” You see, Paul hits on something here. He has this incredible perspective. He sees a future day. And he speaks of it in certain terms. He says to these Thessalonians, that they will in fact be his crown. They will be. And they are in fact already this. They are his joy and glory. They are, but not quite. But they will be. Why was he so certain of this? Let me tell you this. Let me tell you this last thing, this thing which you know and have become convinced of. He was sure of it because God was at work within them. There was great evidence of it. God had begun a work in them, a real work, one that had been tested by the fire of tribulation. They were in fact standing fast in the Lord despite taking hits for their very public allegiance to Christ and his Word. That is the test. That is how he knew. And so the challenge comes to us this way: Are we standing fast? Is our allegiance public? Are we taking hits? Are we standing when those hits come, or are we packing up our bags as it were and checking out? To those who don’t do that, to those who won’t do that because God is at work, because the Word is at work within them, Paul says, “What is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20 For you are our glory and joy.” Amen.
[i] Morris, L. (1991). The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians. The New International Commentary on the Old and New Testament (89). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Pastor Braye studied at Canadian Theological Seminary and the University of Alberta. Presently he labors for “Pastoral Leadership Development at Action International Ministries” In the past he served as pastor of Sovereign Grace Baptist Church and Beckwith Baptist Church. He is From Edmonton, Alberta